Moscow’s most famous landmarks — Red Square, the Kremlin, and the domes of St. Basil’s Cathedral — are swarmed with World Cup fans doing a bit of sightseeing in between matches. Just upriver, more adventurous tourists will find an anonymous-looking apartment block whose history sheds light on the Soviet Union’s darkest days.
The House of the Embankment embodies the history of revolution and dictatorship in miniature. It lies just upstream from the Kremlin and was completed in 1931 to house the Soviet Union’s governing elite.
“These people living here were the so-called ‘old Bolsheviks’ [revolutionaries]. And they were people close to each other — in their spirit and ideology — as well as their fate,” said Olga Trifonova, who runs the House of the Embankment museum, inside one of the block’s roughly 500 apartments.
The museum displays some of the luxurious fittings and furniture the first residents enjoyed. The block offered in-house theaters and cafeterias, libraries and sports halls.
Soon, however, the ostentatious lifestyles of the residents began to look at odds with the ideals of the revolution.
In the mid-1930s, Soviet leader Josef Stalin began the “Great Purge” to rid the country of those deemed enemies of the working class. A million people were imprisoned and 700,000 executed. The residents of the House of the Embankment — once the elite of the revolution — were among the first in line. Arrests and disappearances created a crushing paranoia.
“The residents of the house stopped paying visits to each other. One stopped having confidence in other people,” Trifonova said.
During the 1930s, 800 of the residents were arrested. Close to half of them were executed.
Olga Trifonova’s late husband, Yuri, grew up in the House of the Embankment. His father was arrested during the purges in June 1937 and never seen again. His mother was sent to a Gulag prison in Kazakhstan. In 1976, Yuri Trifonov wrote a best-selling book about his memories, which gave the apartment block its name. He died in 1981.
“This is a story about the nature of fear. How fear mutilates a human for his entire life,” Trifonova said.
Memories of that fear appear to be fading. An opinion poll last year crowned Stalin as Russia’s most outstanding historical figure.
But the grim history of the House of the Embankment is not forgotten, according to Dmitry Taganov of real estate firm INCOM, which is selling some of the apartments on the block.
“Many buyers are scared off by the gloomy background of this House. Many people undoubtedly know about that, even the ones belonging to the younger generation.”
A younger generation that is forming its own historical image of Stalin and the legacy of Communism.